Hearing Loss & Dementia

Hearing Loss & Dementia

Hearing loss is very common, particularly as we get older, affecting almost 1 in 6 New Zealanders.[1] But while hearing loss can be frustrating, frightening, and isolating,[2] did you know that age-related hearing loss can also increase your risk of developing dementia later in life?

The connection between dementia and hearing loss has been shown in several studies, highlighting the importance of making your auditory health a priority. But if you or a loved one is suffering from hearing loss, there’s no need to panic – the good news is, with the use of hearing aids, we can potentially reduce the risk of developing dementia, and the team at Bay Audiology are on hand to help with your hearing needs.

What is dementia?

Dementia is a term to describe a number of degenerative diseases that affect the brain and can affect a person’s ability to function safely in the world.[1] Impaired thinking, memory loss and reduced reasoning ability are all symptoms of dementia (a term that has been replaced in medical settings with “major neurocognitive disorder” and “mild cognitive disorder”) – however, over time, most of the brain’s functions will be affected.[2]

While dementia is more common in people aged 65 and over, it is not considered a normal part of the ageing process and can, in fact, affect people as young as 45.[3] Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, affecting around two-thirds of people with dementia.

Signs of dementia

When most people think of dementia, memory loss comes to mind. But it’s important to note that simply being ‘forgetful’ is not the same as dementia. A person with dementia might have trouble remembering recent events, forget routes they regularly take, be confused about what time of day it is, or repeatedly put things in strange places.[1]

Some other common signs of dementia include an inability to recognise people or objects, loss of sense of direction, loss of ability to understand speech or to communicate using language, a reduction in or loss of problem-solving skills and an inability to learn how to carry out new tasks. They may also exhibit repeated poor judgment, show changes in their personality, have difficulty with balance and stop engaging in activities they once enjoyed.

The link between dementia and hearing loss

Extensive research has discovered a connection between hearing loss and dementia, with people with age-related hearing loss at greater risk of developing dementia. In fact, many experts in the field now believe that hearing loss may be a potential cause of the progressive cognitive disorder. According to a study published in The Lancet medical journal, hearing loss is one of nine “potentially modifiable risk factors for dementia”.

Though the exact reason for the link between hearing loss and dementia hasn’t yet been determined, a few possible factors are at play, according to researchers at John Hopkins School of Medicine. Hearing loss forces the brain to work harder as it attempts to identify sounds, which can be to the detriment of other cognitive functions, such as memory. Hearing loss has also been shown to cause the brain to shrink faster as we age.[1] It may also prevent people from leading socially active lives, reducing the intellectual stimulation they receive (meaning the brain is less engaged).

Studies have also shown that some people with Alzheimer’s disease have changes in the cochlea, which sits inside the inner ear and plays a crucial role in hearing; damage to blood vessels may also damage auditory systems in cases of vascular dementia and hearing loss.

Reducing the risks

There are several things we can do to help reduce the risk of developing dementia and hearing loss. In fact, given the link between hearing loss and dementia, reducing the risk for one can help reduce the chance of developing the other. How? By staying on top of our hearing health with regular hearing tests and using hearing aids when needed.

There are several other things we can do to reduce our risk of dementia, including staying socially connected, looking after our heart health, eating healthily and staying active, engaging in activities we enjoy, avoiding knocks to the head, reducing our alcohol intake and not smoking.[1] Additionally, conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure may increase the risk of dementia – but both of these can be managed with the help of your doctor.

There are also several simple things we can do to help prevent hearing loss, such as limiting the amount of time we spend in loud environments, wearing protective earplugs when involved in noisy activities, not turning the volume on personal listening devices up high (and not listening for lengthy periods of time), and more.

Hearing aids & managing cognitive decline

Hearing loss is known as a “modifiable risk factor” for dementia in older adults, meaning we have the opportunity to do something about it. Left untreated, hearing loss and dementia risk may increase – but using hearing aids appears to reduce the chances of developing dementia from hearing loss.[1]

A recent study reports that treating hearing loss with hearing aids may delay cognitive decline, and some research even suggests that using hearing aids may improve cognitive function. For people at risk of hearing loss and dementia, if difficulties with hearing are caught and treated early via hearing aids, it may be possible to prevent the development of dementia.

Frequently asked questions

What are the early signs of dementia?

While the early signs of dementia vary significantly from person to person, there are some common signs and symptoms. The main symptom linked to the early signs of dementia is memory problems, especially surrounding recent events.

Other early signs of dementia may include:

  • Difficulty with concentration.
  • Struggling to carry out daily tasks that the individual is familiar with.
  • Confusion about the time or place.
  • Sudden mood or behavioural changes.

Likewise, experiencing language problems, such as difficulty finding the right word, is also associated with early signs of dementia. If you or a loved one are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is essential to consult a healthcare professional to receive an accurate diagnosis and the proper ongoing treatment.

What is the difference between Alzheimer's and dementia?

Dementia is an umbrella term for all symptoms that affect an individual's memory, communication abilities and daily functioning. Alzheimer's disease, on the other hand, is the most prevalent type of dementia, making up about 60 to 80% of all cases. Alzheimer's is a specific condition in which certain brain cells die, causing the onset of dementia symptoms. Despite being most commonly caused by Alzheimer's, dementia can be caused by various conditions, such as vascular issues, Lewy Body disease and frontotemporal degeneration.

What type of hearing loss is associated with dementia?

Sensorineural hearing loss, the most common form of hearing loss, is most often associated with dementia. Sensorineural hearing loss is a condition that stems from damage to the inner ear, also known as the cochlea, or the nerve pathways that attach the inner ear to the brain. While research is not yet conclusive on the exact connection between this form of hearing loss and dementia, some theories have suggested that the cognitive load of coping with hearing loss may play a part in contributing to cognitive decline. However, it is also possible that both conditions may be symptoms of a common underlying pathology, such as ageing or vascular disease. Regular hearing check-ups may aid in early detection and intervention.

When to seek help

Early signs of hearing loss, such as having difficulty keeping up with conversations, needing those around you to repeat themselves, feeling like people are mumbling or a buzzing or ringing sound in your ears, are your cue to speak to a medical professional. If you begin to notice early signs of hearing loss – either in yourself or a loved one – visit your doctor or nearest Bay Audiology clinic to have your/their hearing assessed. The sooner hearing loss is addressed and treated, the sooner you can start to decrease the risk of dementia.

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